On the eve of the 70th Independence Day, a young woman from the third smallest state in the largest democracy of the world was attempting a deathly vault to bring home a glint of Olympic glory in a sport that hardly ever occupies the national print media or even mind space.
As I watched her live on Dutch television, I had butterflies in my stomach. More than a medal, I was praying for this gutsy girl to land safely on her feet. While training for the Produnova vault prior to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 where she won the bronze, she had said “I’d seen boys do it, so why not? It’s tough because when you land after two aerial somersaults, the weight that comes on the leg is double – if I’m 45 kg, the legs have to take 80-90 kg. Now, imagine landing on the neck instead, which can crack under such weight. I don’t imagine the worst, it doesn’t work like that.” Land she did safely on the mat and into our hearts, missing a medal by 0.15 points.
Social media was instantly abuzz with an emotional outburst of pride amidst the agony. As befits a sportsperson who is deeply intimate with the blood, sweat and tears it takes to compete at the highest level of their sport, Dipa Karmakar swallowed her disappointment in front of TV reporters and promised to do better in 2020. Tears filmed her eyes even as she put up a brave smile. A few dark clouds of cynicism cast a shadow in my news feed. A few intellectuals who probably focused more comparing academic mark sheets than on sweating it on the sports field in school felt inexplicably entitled to demand from athletes a bronze, silver or gold for their country.
Fortunately, within the week, a die-hard fighter from a state infamous for a skewed gender ratio put India on the medals board with a bronze in wrestling. Sakshi Malik scripted the story that Bollywood could not.
The silver lining came soon after with a shuttler smashing her way into the finals. PV Sindhu stood tall on the podium, the Ashok Chakra in the tricolour framing her head like a halo. “Saved by the girl child” – gasped a nation accustomed to hearing “Save the girl child” amidst the dark brutality of female foeticide, malnutrition, illiteracy, child marriages, dowry deaths, rapes and sexual slavery.
A deluge of emotions surged within me as I saw these dauntless women on TV and read their stories of perseverance and determination over the last one week. Sindhu, Sakshi, Dipa, Lalita, Aditi are the flares who will spark a dream in the girls of tomorrow. The question is if the parents, teachers, coaches and the extended community are going to allow these dreams to see the light of day.
Instead of raging about the current state of affairs and rambling about how to get to the future state, I thought of structuring my thoughts as per the methodology I preach! I will deliberately however, steer clear of all talk around what the government can do to build a sporting culture. Academicians may be able to provide a well-researched answer on the significant factors affecting the Olympic MPM (medals per million) metric . I will meanwhile search for answers at a more personal level.
Ever since I read Jiddu Krishnamurti in my teens, in the deep recesses of my heart I have found resonance in his statement – “I maintain that no organization can lead man to spirituality. If an organization be created for this purpose, it becomes a crutch, a weakness, a bondage, and must cripple the individual, and prevent him from growing, from establishing his uniqueness, which lies in the discovery for himself of that absolute, unconditioned Truth.”
I could as well replace the word spirituality with Olympic glory and the statement would still ring true. The Olympics after all are a celebration of uniqueness. Individuals who pursue excellence for the sake of the climb as much as the summit where only the fastest, highest, strongest dare to go.
Define the problem
Why is it cause enough for celebration if an Indian sportswoman qualifies for the finals in an Olympic event? Why is the effective participation of Indian girls/women in sports so low?
Measure how big is the problem
The high percentage of women (62%) in the Chinese contingent is quite noteworthy. Netherlands among the top three does not surprise me as such. Women jogging or biking with a hockey stick in their hand or bag are such a common sight in the lowlands.
It is heartening to see that the absolute number of women in the Indian Olympic contingent this year is more than double of what it was in the last few games.
Analyse the root causes of the problem
India today is unable to give all her daughters proper nutrition and basic education leave alone the opportunity to excel in sports. Even among families who can afford an education for their girls, the primary focus at the end of school is to find a suitable boy. And among the families who educate their girls to pursue a career, the tendency is to hone her extracurricular skills in music, art and dance.
Born in the 70s, I was one of the few in my Bengali family to learn a classical dance form. I remember an uncle mildly suggesting that classical music would be a better option if I wanted to pursue it even after getting married.
I consider myself immensely lucky to have studied in schools where sports was an integral part of growing up. Sweating it out on the basketball field at The BSS School was something I looked forward to each day. The joy of being selected for the school team and the camaraderie we shared with each other are precious memories we reminisce about even today.
I wonder if I would have been so active in sports had I studied in a co-ed school in my teens. Girls need a safe space in that age to come to terms with the changes in their body and to grow in confidence. If you look around the streets or housing complexes in urban India, you will hardly ever see girls playing together with the boys. Boys and girls can sometimes be seen to play a game like badminton but contact games like football or basketball hardly ever have mixed gender teams. The difference in physical strength is in my opinion much less of an issue compared to the outdated social restrictions on interactions between boys and girls who have stepped into puberty
Finally, in a country where poverty is rampant and people go hungry, malnutrition is inevitable irrespective of gender. However,there is subtle discrimination even in families that do not lead a hand to mouth existence.
Based on the limited sample of educated and emancipated Bengali families I have seen, more often than not the best piece of meat/chicken/fish is still reserved for the men. This disconnect between how the feminine force is worshiped once a year in the public space and how women are deprived from realizing their physical prowess within the four walls of the home is a paradox in itself.
In a country like India, the dreary desert sand of dead habit desperately needs to be inundated by a clear stream of reason highlighting the long term benefits of girls’ participation in sports. Only then can the mind and body be led forward into an ever-widening feeling of empowerment. I hope that organisations like Women Win actively support sport and physical activity programs worldwide as a strategy for social change and women’s empowerment.
And I pray that every young girl who feels the flutter of a sporting dream in her heart finds the courage to push her own boundaries. May she turn deaf to archaic dictum. May she embrace constructive criticism and be impervious to destructive cynicism. May she earn the support of her elders. May she fight for the recognition of her talent. And may we as society give her the space to soar – faster, higher, stronger.
Written byRumela Sengupta
Rumela was equally loyal to mathematics and literature in school, while dabbling in basketball and Bharatnatyam outside of the classroom. She eventually graduated with a Masters in Statistics from the Indian Statistical Institute and ended up in Information Technology. After completing a rather symbolic 14 years at PwC & IBM (combined), she joined UNC Plus Delta,in the Netherlands. She tries to keep the connection with her mother tongue alive in a foreign land by translating Tagore’s Gitabitan in English in collaboration with a dear friend from Bangladesh. When the weather is not too chilly, she loves taking her bike out into Het Amsterdamse Bos or along the Amstel and losing herself in the stillness of nature. She is happiest when curled up with a book in bed.